"In My Craft or Sullen Art"
When I read Denis Dutton's The Art Instinct a while back, I was struck by his persuasive distinction between craft and art. A craft is an act of making in which the end product is known ahead of time, and one can reliably follow a list of instructions in order to arrive at that product. In the case of artistic making, while the end product is imagined more or less specifically ahead of time, the process of making is itself an act of discovery, in which no unambiguous list of instructions, but rather serendipity and unconscious insights may play a major role, such that the end product may turn out quite different from initially conceived. Like most distinctions, this one is not absolute, but it may nonetheless be useful.
It occurs to me that happiness--or the more ambitious notion of the well-lived life--has elements of both craft and art. Like anyone in the mental health field, I am asked occasionally for recommendations of "self-help" books, but I have never had much confidence in the genre. If one walks down any self-help aisle in a bookstore one encounters the same dozen or so unobjectionable but generic recommendations, packaged and re-packaged in myriad ways. What is desired, it would seem, is a list of instructions for the craft of happiness. Follow these rules and you will be happy.
"The Happiness Project," a blog by Gretchen Rubin, is a relatively endearing instance of the self-help genre, largely because of her self-deprecating, no-nonsense style. Her ideas are straightforward and commonsensical. Inasmuch as happiness can be a craft, this is as succinct and reasonable an instruction book as any. Indeed, she has her list of "twelve commandments" with inoffensive suggestions such as: be yourself, be kind, don't keep score, try new things, live generously.
There are a number of basic behaviors that, as not only wisdom literature but also abundant research shows, boost happiness (or at least are correlated with greater well-being; the direction of causation is harder to demonstrate). Eat a balanced diet. Don't smoke or use drugs. Drink alcohol in moderation if at all. Get adequate sleep. Obtain a good education. Maintain a network of supportive relationships. Do measures like these suffice to produce happiness?
It may be that following such rules produce happiness in at least a minimal, craft-like fashion, but they do no better than create the possibility for a higher ideal of happiness as a well-lived life. Similarly, suppose that one wants to fashion not only a functional table, but a table that will be an object of great ingenuity, beauty, and aesthetic distinction. To do this, one must first of all master the basic aspects of woodworking; the table as work of art must first of all have four sturdy legs, an even surface, and weight-bearing capacity. There are clear instructions for the latter, but none for the would-be artist of the table.
The self-help genre, exemplified by Rubin's "The Happiness Project," is very much like an instruction booklet for making tables. It seeks to remove frank impediments to happiness in the same way that the craft booklet seeks to establish a board resting on four legs. But beyond that, happiness, like life, is very much a matter of contingency and fine judgment. This is shown by the fact that some of Rubin's suggestions, as she acknowledges, are contradictory and paradoxical. Accept yourself as you contingently are, but try to improve yourself where possible. It is important to have an independent identity and not to rely on others for happiness, yet it is demonstrably true that healthy relationships foster happiness. How can all of this be true?
Perhaps there is a recipe for the well-lived life, but the problem is that it is far too abstract. There are rules, but as to the question of when and where to apply a particular one, the answer is always "it depends." Few of us are artists in any conventional sense, but arguably we are all condemned to be artists of the self and of the life; some of us come off quite well, while some of us botch the job. And this need not be a matter of pride or shame; Salieri can't be blamed for not being Mozart, and Mozart can't claim complete credit, as many factors beyond his will went into the making of Mozart.
We talk of psychotherapy, or of happiness, as if it is a unitary thing, but arguably there are as many kinds of both as there are people. Some psychotherapy is basic training for the making of functional tables. Some people want guidance in refinishing a table, or perhaps they think so, until it turns out that it is wobbly, and it turns out they need to go back to basic instructions. Some people have a beautiful table and want a mentor to help them to make it still better, or to use it to its best advantage. Some have inherited a table that seems burdensome in its ugliness, or its perfection. And it is not given to some people to make tables--perhaps they should make something else.
Why can't some people seem to get their tables made? They may lack the strength or coordination, both by inheritance or habituation. They may have had an accident that limited them forever. They may lack self-confidence or initiative, and may want someone else to make their table for them. After they build one, someone may come along and destroy it. Fatally, some may despair of the point of making tables at all.
The analogy has probably grown tiresome, but it helps me to understand some of my own ambivalence over self-help approaches. Medication I suppose may provide the fundamental conditions for building a table: basic supplies, and strength and steadiness of hand--as a psychiatrist I often find myself as a purveyor, then, of power tools as it were. The kind of psychotherapy that interests me entails looking at internal resistances to the building of tables, or debates about what type of table should be built, or optimizing a table already built. But for cognitive-behavioral therapy, which is a table-making booklet in twelve easy steps, there is the self-help aisle.